ATLANTA — On Ronald Acuña Jr. bat-flip bobblehead night at Truist Park, the man himself made sure all 40,695 in attendance got a moment to remember, whether or not they were among 15,000 who received the giveaway souvenir.
Acuña homered on the first pitch of the first inning, as he is wont to do, giving the Braves a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 9-3 win against the Phillies. But the Atlanta superstar was just getting started.
He homered again leading off the sixth inning, giving Acuña 39 home runs and moving him within one homer of becoming the fifth player ever to have at least 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in a single season. Familiar chants of “M-V-P!” filled sold-out Truist Park after each of his home runs as Acuña made his ebullient, flamboyant trot around the bases.
“The guy, like I’ve said before, is the most talented player on the planet,” said Braves pitcher Spencer Strider, who had 11 strikeouts in seven innings for his majors-leading 18th win in 23 decisions. “Every day (Acuña) does something special.”
Strider pitched superbly, limiting the Phillies to four hits, three runs and no walks while recording his 11th double-digit strikeout game this season, one shy of John Smoltz’s 1996 modern-era franchise record. The Braves snapped a four-game losing skid with their first win since clinching a sixth consecutive NL East title Wednesday at Philadelphia, a game also won by Strider.
this is Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 2nd game this season with multiple HR and a SB, tied for the most such games in a single season since at least 1901 https://t.co/RGVQSdylDe
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) September 20, 2023
Marcell Ozuna went 3-for-3 with a walk and three RBIs to make him the fifth Brave with at least 85 RBIs, tying the franchise record since RBIs became an official stat in 1920.
But this night belonged to Acuña, who got his 38th and 39th homers, his 67th stolen base and his 99th and 100th RBIs, while raising his average to .338 with an NL-leading 1.014 OPS.
“The ability to go out and get the lead first batter of the game is unbelievable,” said Strider, who was wearing an Acuña 30-60 shirt after the game and noted, “Yeah, he’s going to negate the T-shirt that they made for him pretty quickly, so I thought I’d wear it.”
Strider added, “I’m very grateful to be able to be front-row seat to everything he’s done this year. Who knows what he’s going to be able to do the rest of his career? I’m sure it’s going to make this year look like an average year for him.”
He’s doing things that literally no player has ever done.
“I just thank God that I’ve been able to stay healthy,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “I’ve said before, being healthy is my primary objective, my main goal. I feel like if I’m healthy, I’m able to do the things that I’m doing.”
It was his second game this season with multiple homers and a stolen base, tied for the most such games in a single season going back to at least 1901, per MLB’s Sarah Langs. Acuña’s 12 games with at least one homer and stolen base are tied with Bobby Bonds (1973) for second-most in a season since 1900, one shy of Rickey Henderson’s modern-era record in 1986.
“He’s just putting together some kind of special, special year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Acuña, who, rather than show any sign of pressure as he flirts with history and hears those “M-V-P!” chants, has taken his game to another level, with 11 homers and eight stolen bases in his past 20 games.
“The one place that kid is not going to feel pressure is between those lines — he’s in his world there,” Snitker said.
Strider allowed just one hit and one hit batter through five scoreless innings before giving up two singles and Bryce Harper’s three-run homer in the sixth after the Braves built a 7-0 lead. Strider pitched a perfect seventh to finish with four hits, three runs and no walks allowed while piling up 11 strikeouts to raise his majors-leading total to 270 in 176 innings.
In eight career regular-season games against the Phillies, including seven starts, Strider is 8-0 with a 1.90 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings.
“There’s an element of randomness to every outing, that I think kind of keeps a team from having the exact same approach, on either side of the ball,” said Strider, who was more economical than usual, firing 68 strikes in 91 pitches. “We did a good job moving the fastball around, and that’s something that we didn’t do quite as much (at Philadelphia last week).”
Strider will be among those watching closely Wednesday, with Acuña knocking at history’s door and appearing poised to burst through. The Braves close the series at 12:20 p.m. Wednesday with Bryce Elder facing the Phillies’ Aaron Nola, against whom Acuña has a .326 average and 1.122 OPS with four homers in 43 at-bats.
That’s his shot at getting 40-40 at home before the Braves go on the road for a four-game series at Washington.
“There’s nothing like being at home,” Acuña said after the Braves’ 49th home sellout Tuesday. “Honestly, the support that we’re given, I feel like it helps us focus and do what we need to do to get the job done. It’s incredible.”
A case easily can be made that none of the four current members of the 40-40 club — José Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano — had a season as impressive as this one by Acuña, who leads the majors in stolen bases by a wide margin. Oakland’s Esteury Ruiz (61) is the only other player with as many as 50.
None of the current 40-40 club members had more than 46 home runs or 46 stolen bases in his 40-40 season. That means one more homer by Acuña will make him not just the fifth member of the 40-40 club, but the only member of the 40-50 and 40-60 clubs. And with one homer and three steals in the Braves’ remaining 11 games, Acuña would become the charter member of — gulp — the 40-70 club.
Seven of the Braves’ remaining games will be against the Washington Nationals, who’ve allowed the second-most stolen bases in the majors.
The four currently in the 40-40 club were contemporaries of former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who now serves as a hitting consultant for the team and is one of Acuña’s biggest admirers. The last to join the 40-40 club was Soriano in 2006, the only newcomer this century. It might be a long time before anyone else does what Acuña is doing.
“It’s pretty special,” said Jones, who had career-highs of 45 home runs and 25 stolen bases in his 1999 NL MVP season, and believes he is watching an MVP performance from Acuña. “You come to the park every day thinking he’s going to do something unbelievable. And whether it’s a home run that only goes 420 but it only gets 15 feet off the ground, or a ball that goes 470 feet, or, you know, you don’t want to pitch to him, he could steal three or four bags every night if he wanted to. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“That’s why I think they should have already mailed the (MVP) plaque to his house.”
Before Tuesday, it seemed healthy might be the only potential obstacle to preventing a 40-70 season for Acuña. After missing games Saturday and Sunday at Miami with right calf tightness, the only starts he’s missed all season, the Braves didn’t suggest that he dial back his ultra-aggressiveness, but just that he be smart about it. Snitker has lauded Acuña all season for his hustle and base running.
Snitker said Acuña knew his body better than anyone else and trusted that the superstar would know when he should run and whether he’s fully recovered to go all-out on the base paths. He ran in the fifth inning after his leadoff single against Michael Lorenzen, who had just entered the game, and Acuña’s disruptive presence helped the Braves put together a four-run inning that turned a three-run lead into a 7-0 margin.
The first-inning homer off Phillies left-hander Christopher Sánchez was the 33rd career leadoff homer for Acuña, extending his franchise record, and the seventh leadoff homer he’s hit this season. Thirteen of his leadoff homers have come on the first pitch, including three this season.
The Braves again avoided a five-game losing streak, something they haven’t had since September 2017. Not only are they the only MLB team without at least a five-game skid since the beginning of the 2018 season, their 859 games without a losing streak longer than four games is the third-longest such span in MLB history and the longest since the Yankees went 877 games without dropping five in a row during 1946-1952.
(Photo of Ronald Acuña: Brett Davis / USA Today)